Sunday, November 1, 2009

For decades as white residents fled to the suburbs, Atlanta’s black political establishment, led by a string of strong mayors, revived the moribund economy and so revamped the city’s image that it earned a national reputation as “Hotlanta.”

Ironically, that success - including a winning bid to host the 1996 Summer Olympics and a slew of Fortune 500 companies relocating to the city - has brought white voters flocking back to the city and, for the first time in 36 years, could put a white candidate back in the mayor’s office when voters go to the polls Tuesday.

In a race testing racial harmony in Georgia’s largest city, some veteran black power brokers say their hold on power is being undercut by their past successes running the city.

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“We haven’t always gotten the credit for that, no,” said former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who oversaw the early days of the city’s rebirth during the 1980s. “I brought in 1,100 companies from around the world - $70 billion in private investment - and generated more than a million new jobs.

“But most people think that’s automatic, that that would have happened anyway,” he said with a laugh.

Black mayors have occupied City Hall since 1973, but this year, a white City Council member is leading in the polls, even though two black civic leaders urged black voters to unite against her.

Mary Norwood, who has served on the Atlanta City Council for eight years and lives in the upscale, mostly white neighborhood of Buckhead, has been expanding her lead over the past six weeks. In a poll released last weekend by Survey USA, 46 percent of respondents said they would vote for Mrs. Norwood over several black candidates. State Sen. Kasim Reed followed with 26 percent and City Council President Lisa Borders came in third with 17 percent.

The contest is posing some delicate questions for a city that has long prided itself on its progressive racial attitudes - the “city too busy to hate.”

While some in the majority-black city insist race is playing no role in the election, others say the issue is just under the surface.

“I suspect for many voters, maybe all voters, race would be something they would think about, and although it’s not the only factor, for some voters it is the determining factor,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

The Survey USA poll found Mrs. Norwood leading by a 6-to-1 margin among whites, Republicans and independents. Mr. Reed, who has been endorsed by Mr. Young, leads among blacks, who made up 59 percent of the electorate in Survey USA’s turnout model.

And in a major break with past elections, a separate Insider Advantage poll on Oct. 16 reported that Mrs. Norwood was even leading among the city’s black voters, with nearly one-third supporting her.

With six candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot and two write-in candidates, many do not expect any candidate to win a majority of the votes on Election Day, which means the top two finishers would compete in a runoff on Dec. 1.

But with only a few campaigning days left, Mrs. Norwood is nearing 50 percent in the polls and could win an outright victory on Tuesday.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, whites fled the city, with the black percentage of the population soaring to about 70 percent in the 1980s.

But between 2000 and 2006, Atlanta’s white population grew faster than that of any other U.S. city, according to the Brookings Institution. In 2000, Atlanta was 33 percent white and 61 percent black. In 2007, the numbers were 38 percent white and 57 percent black, according to U.S. Census data.

“Black voters have been moving further and further out of Atlanta, and whites who wanted to be closer to work have been moving in,” Mr. Bullock said, noting that the city has grown by 100,000 residents since 2000.

Political power and race have a long, tangled history in the Georgia capital. The divisions reached new heights in 1973, when Maynard Jackson, a Democrat, ran for mayor.

Mr. Jackson targeted his campaign to blacks, who less than a decade earlier had won the full, unrestricted right to vote. He demanded that the city’s white business elite open their doors to minorities and urged strict new affirmative-action policies to level the playing field for blacks.

The election of the first black mayor in a major Southern city solidified the voting power of urban blacks in Atlanta, and the city has elected black mayors ever since.

But this year’s race has not split neatly along racial lines, as some prominent black politicians have stepped out to support Mrs. Norwood.

State Rep. Ralph Long last month endorsed Mrs. Norwood, who hails from the center of his heavily black southwest Atlanta district. He was the first black leader to back the white candidate.

Mr. Long said his endorsement was based on Mrs. Norwood’s support of a local police chief and her call to develop blighted areas that remain in the city. But he was also a bit perturbed by a memo written by two Clark Atlanta University professors, which sent shock waves through the city.

The memo, written by political science professors William Boone and Keith Jennings, warned that black Atlantans need to act quickly to thwart a Norwood victory and maintain black political control of the top job in the city.

“With the ‘Black Mayor First’ approach, there is an unstated assumption that having a black mayor in Atlanta is equal to having a black social, economic and political agenda, or at least someone in office who would be sensitive to that agenda if not a full promoter of that agenda,” the memo said.

The ad hoc group, called the Black Leadership Forum, suggested that blacks unite around Mrs. Borders, calling her the most electable black candidate. That didn’t sit well with Mr. Long.

“You speak for no one,” Mr. Long said in a letter to the group. “There are no masses of black voters waiting with bated breath to hear from you who the anointed candidate will be.”

Black candidates in the race - including Mr. Reed and Mrs. Borders - also moved swiftly to distance themselves from the memo.

Mrs. Norwood, who describes herself as “purple” fiscal conservative - halfway between Republican red and Democratic blue - also sought to move past the issue of race. In a campaign event last month, flanked by mostly black supporters, she renewed her commitment to represent the entire city.

“Quite honestly, the race issue has died here in Atlanta because there are more pressing issues,” said Oglethorpe University politics professor Kendra King, who has extensively analyzed the city’s politics.

Mr. Young, the former mayor, agreed.

“I don’t think there has been many racial overtones,” he said. “Atlanta has a reputation of voting for progressive white people. Atlanta’s black community has been willing to vote for the person they think is the most competent.”

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